Joschua Yesni Arnaut’s art relies heavily on his personal experiences. His exhibition ‘Didn’t We Deserve A Look At You The Way You Really Are?’, on view at Opelvillen Rüsselsheim’s Schleuse focusses on the issue of violence and machismo. For PASSE-AVANT, we publish an English translation of Luisa Del Prete’s interview with the artist about neuroses, privileges and the allurement of chance.
Luisa Del Prete You are currently at the end of your studies at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach under the guidance of Heiner Blum. How have you made your way into art practice?
Joschua Y. Arnaut My entrance into the art world came through detours. Before applying to the HfG I studied sociology and musicology, but after a while I came to realize that I’d rather enjoyed working in a practical way. So, I turned to film and music studies, but soon realized this didn’t fit me either. Genuinely starting with art practice was almost random. Friends had recommended the university to me, so I started with a visiting semester without knowing what I wanted to do. The first approaches were more a mix of different mediums and forms of representation. First of all, lots of photography. But I also used video and music, or analog collages as tools for depiction. The latter still shows traces in my present work, by way of extracting and composing different objects.
LDP Later you decided to focus on photography and I encountered some of your works at the RAY Festival in 2018, where they were shown alongside photographs by Laura Brichta, Felicitas von Lutza and Martin Liebscher.
JYA Yes, this decision was influenced by my grandfather. He had taken the place of a role model because my father died while I was still young. In Yugoslavia, where my maternal family is from, he had worked as a photographer and so I came to think that my usage of the camera was almost mandatory.
LDP Or perhaps inherited so to say. However, your new approach shows a cut from photographical techniques. The installations shown at your exhibition at Schleuse are all material objects, like the motorcycle cover you use in Quadrophenia (all works, 2020) or the cut-offs in Wolves In The Throne Room. What made you repudiate the camera?
JYA There was nothing left for me in photography. Looking at older works, I couldn’t relate to them anymore. They were all too sleek and unpersonal. You should know, I’ve got a perfectionist streak that wants to see everything in a structured and organized composition. It annoyed me, so I resorted to found objects. They leave less space for perfectionism.
LDP You get the feeling of consonance in your early works. Even if the photographs depicted broken or disassembled objects, there was always an underlying notion of composition, which is also confirmed by the choice of colours: pastel colours that go well together connote a sentiment that is aesthetically pleasing.
JYA The use of strong compositions is a result of a tendency to perfectionism which is kind if a neurosis of mine. I am trying to unlearn this through working in a trial-and-error method. If you look at Quadrophenia you notice that the material has a layer of dirt and remnants of different weather conditions. In addition, I’ve always had a fascination for objects that display a powerful personal symbolism: For a while I used to carry my father’s pocketknife around – as if it was a proxy for him not being there. The symbolism is also present in Wolves In The Throne Room. The cut-offs are from private sellers on the internet, with patches and paraphernalia already attached to them. The intimacy of its former owner is still captured inside the cloth. At the same time, they somehow also connect to my own youth and the anger that I’ve felt during that period of time. Finding out that my father had been murdered turned my world upside down. I couldn’t go back to business as usual.
LDP One can tell. It appears like you have a strong need of analysing your personal experiences through artistic expression. Violence and anger are themes that come up constantly in your work and are also mentioned in the exhibition text. There you write that the culture surrounding violence and concepts of machismo played in a big role in the process of the work.
JYA Yes, I’ve always had a penchant for political, activist and idealistic art, so I wanted to incorporate forms of these into my own artistic practice. While contemplating about political issues I asked myself, what I was even able to talk about as a young, white male. Working in documentary way, for example with photography, was out of the question for me but looking in the mirror I realized I had to start with criticizing myself.
LDP This is also transferable to our times: The protests that follow George Floyd’s death trigger an examination of the underlying structural racism and racial disparities are being pilloried. Acknowledging the privileges that come with being white and dismantling the notion of being a neutral and objective instance is a big component in understanding white supremacy. Your work can be understood as an impulse to gain awareness about historical and contemporary conditions that structure society.
JYA That is my point. Statistics show that violence is mostly perpetrated by young men. This argument has also been instrumentalized by right wing politicians during the refugee debate, but the truth is that it does not matter where you’re from. I’m also a young man so I felt compelled to grapple with this issue. The waistcoats I used in Wolves In The Throne Room speak to my personal experiences and so does Black Flag Damaged. I was taught to keep
LDP Acknowledging guilt is part of an ongoing contemplation process, that persists until death. Socialization has its roots deep inside of our minds and bodies.
JYA I would say the same. Art is also a medium of meditation and processing. If I work from my position as a white male, I cannot exclude issues of violence. But violence is also interesting from an aesthetical perspective, because it always integrates the factor of coincidence. This came to me while working on Black Flag Damaged. The damage done to the plasterboards is unique, it cannot be repeated in the same way. This is a good remedy against perfectionism. Nowadays I try to hand off as much decisions as possible – except for the concept. The uncontrollable and accidental, which is inherent in violence, helps with this aspiration.
LDP The title of the exhibition ‘Didn’t We Deserve A Look At You The Way You Really Were’ goes quite well with this assumption. It contains the message to unlearn a subjective perception of one’s self and let go of self-fashioning.
JYA Martin Kippenberger once said: “Good art has the responsibility to show itself naked, while at the same time retracting from pointing the finger at others”. In Black Flag Damaged I tried to do exactly that. My personal experiences are the base of its concept, but I don’t try to generalize them or search for fault in others. Nonetheless, the exhibition also aimed to display aspects of violence that refer to the overall society. It is not about mounting a picture of the metal scene or hypothesizing about people who like to listen to this kind of music. Everybody will be or has been confronted with violence. This may be on a personal basis or through culture, but it is integrated into our society. That is the reason why the issues underlying the exhibition’s concept are accessible not only to metalheads, but to a wider public
LDP Confrontation also results from the interplay of the objects shown in the exhibition. The layout of the room, in which your work is shown, has more similarities to a protracted hallway that is divided by a stone bench, than to the traditional White Cube. This concept of space allows you to establish a visual dialogue between your artworks. Was this difficult for you to work with or did it rather strengthen your intention?
JYA I’ve thought about the placing as a Mexican standoff. Movies that represent violence in clichéd way often use this technique – as for example in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. By positioning the baseball bat connected to Black Flag Damaged in the middle of the room, it also raises associations to crime scenes. Or it functions as an invitation to the observer to become active. There is a chance that as a guest you could get a hold of the bat and go on smashing holes into the wall, or maybe even destroying the displayed art. I don’t think anybody will take this opportunity, but the possibility that it might happen is there. Even though the baseball bat is only connected to one specific artwork it relates to the whole exhibition: The aesthetics of the cut-offs and the messiness of the motorcycle tarpaulin are captured in its symbolism.
LDP This rough aesthetic brings together your initial thoughts about violence and unrestrained unloading.
JYA Exactly. Coincidence is not only a factor in the objects that have been broken, but also in the agent which inflicted the damage: While I was breaking the surface, it broke. Instead of myself deciding when to stop, it made the decision itself. You can see this yourself when looking at the plasterboards of Black Flag Damaged. The holes are not placed in an all over structure. When the bat broke, the song I listened to while working also played out, so I restrained from continuing. This moment of coincidence has helped me set a framework.
This interview was originally conducted in German and first published at The ARTicle.
Joschua Yesni Arnaut – Didn’t We Deserve A Look At You The Way You Really Are?
16 May – 5 July 2020